How has your first book changed your life?
33. Karla Kelsey
The year before winning the Sawtooth Prize, I had started to send out Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary in a version that had basically the same poems but was in an entirely different order. I was never very comfortable with this version because of its order--because this book works as a whole (it is full of repetition, accumulation, variation), the order matters so much. But I couldn't figure out how to rework it.
It is very much thanks to Eleni Sikelianos that I found its new order. She suggested reordering via form and pattern on the page (a section of prose poems, a section of open field poems, a section of more standard, left-justified poems). As the book is so visual and pattern-oriented, this seemed right. And after working on different orders within sections, the book really clicked and I realized that the book hadn't really been finished until it found its order.
Were you amazed to win? Or did you have a feeling you might?
I was really amazed. I remember well the night that Janet Holmes called. I was out and she left a message simply telling me to call her. Although I had no other reason for her to have called me, I would not allow myself to believe that she had called about publishing the book until I actually talked with her and she told me that Carolyn Forché had chosen it. I don't think I actually really believed that Knowledge, Forms was a book until I saw the galleys.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
What I remember most vividly is when I received my bound galleys because this is the first time that I saw the book look like a book. I was walking home from teaching and my husband met me, holding the galleys, on the bridge that leads to the little isle that we live on (we live in a tiny town so it was easy for him to intercept me). I was so excited. The day I got the actual book is also vivid--it was a Saturday and I had a feeling that I would be getting the books in the mail and kept opening the door and looking on the doorstep. Probably on the fifth peek the box of books was there. I tore into it and was stunned by the beautiful books. I remember calling my mother and being fairly speechless, only to say how beautiful they were and that even if someone who bought the book hated my work they would have felt their $16.00 well spent because the book is so beautifully published.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
I was involved in the cover in so far as Jeff Clark came up with about 5 different designs and Janet asked me which one I preferred--it turns out that Janet and I both liked the same cover, so that was that. All of them were gorgeous and would have made excellent covers. I am so happy to have had Jeff create my cover. I have long admired his bookwork as well as his poetry. And Janet was wonderful about not only involving me in the cover design, but she actually made the book wider to accommodate some of the longer lines of the work. Since the book is so visual, I didn't want longer lines broken and indented, so I was going to rework some of them to fit the standard book width--rewriting was worth it to preserve the sense of the lines spanning edge-to-edge. Instead of having me do this, Janet suggested that she redesign the book to accommodate my lines--something I never would have expected!
Before your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
No, I didn't expect my life to change. I've known several poets with books (one and many) and their lives don't seem to be very different from having the books. I think they would still be writing, teaching, and sharing their work without the book.
In a sense, my life has been different. Having Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary published has given me more confidence. In addition, before the book was taken I had accepted a job as a visiting assistant professor at Susquehanna University. They were to do a search for the tenure track non-visiting version of the job that year. I don't know how much having the book published influenced the outcome, but it made me feel more confident when I entered that search. It was also fun to have the book come out as I got used to living in a new community of writers and readers.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I didn't really have a set of expectations for what would happen with the book. I've known people to have books come out that get tons of attention and people to have books that come out to little attention and I realize that this doesn't necessarily correspond to the quality of work, so I try not to set up expectations in terms of reception. A nice surprise that happened was that when I went to AWP last year several people I had never met before told me that they had read my book and liked it. That was a great feeling. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising to have something like that happen at AWP, the largest gathering possible of people who could have read my book, but there is just so much at AWP, and so many great books floating around, it didn't occur to me to expect someone to look at my little plastic name badge, recognize my name, and connect me to my book.
I did a few readings last year and will do a couple more with my good friend Aaron McCollough this fall when his third book comes out from Ahsahta (we read at the University of Denver on October 26 and for the Clean Part reading series in Lincoln, NE, on the 28th). One of the great things about doing readings has been doing them with friends that I don't get to see very often. Susan Maxwell (whose first book Passenger came out just before mine) and I went to Iowa to read. We had been students there and it was great fun to go back and see my teachers and the town again. I did a reading at USC, which my first poetry teacher, David St John, set up for me. That was a wonderful feeling, to have my teacher, who I have known since I was about 18, introduce me and my book. There are difficulties in doing poetry readings because there is no budget for them and a small audience, but one of the great things is that you end up calling on your friends to have you read or to put you up on their couch and it is a rewarding excuse to see the people who really matter to you and to read for people you are connected to, and to meet their friends and communities.
I wish that someone had given me some idea of reading series that like to have poets who have just published a first book to read (if there are any). Finding places to read has been hard; I feel awkward asking people if I don't know them personally because I have no idea if they would be interested in my work. One of the best pieces of advice that I have gotten about publishing is that it is a situation of chance--just send your work out and keep sending and don't get discouraged or wrapped up in who is publishing with what presses in a negative way.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing (or other artistic pursuits)?
I don't know that the book's publication has influenced my writing much. Before it was taken, I had already started on another manuscript which I've just finished. The new book, called Iteration Nets, is based on the sonnet and was very engrossing and obsessive. I suppose I am lucky in that I didn't have to wait too long between books to have something to work on. I think it would feel like a lot of pressure to have a book taken and not have anything in the works, so to speak.
More than critical response, the book itself has impacted my writing because I was so deeply engaged with it, I could really feel its limitations. I think and hope these limitations were necessary to the project, but it felt very good to be working in a different way when I began work on the sonnets. Now that the sonnets are done, I am feeling out some new things, which is both liberating and a bit intimidating. However, it is in a way a chance to begin myself again, which is exciting.
I do want my life to change--I have a very nice life, but stasis is frightening even though it is a big myth--just try to keep your life static and see! What I really want, though, is to be able to craft the changes in my life, or at least my responses to these changes. This is a way that writing helps--not in a necessarily therapeutic sense, but as a way to see the world and myself in a fresh light. As a way to, at least when I am working on poems, show myself a careful, thoughtful, slow way of being that is so easily lost in the society we have built for ourselves to live in.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
I have a certain faith that if I keep working hard every morning before I go to teach that I will learn this better way of being in the world that I describe above. I like to think that this hard work not only enriches my work and my sense of the world, but that it carries over to what other people are able to get out of knowing me.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
To a large extent change in the world can only happen on an individual level, or at least has to begin there in order to manufacture the social situations in which everyone has the leisure to work on themselves. As an optimist, I think that if everyone spent at least 5 hours a week in front of a blank piece of paper, seriously considering the language that they write down upon it, that the world would be a different place. As a pessimist, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine a world in which this could happen, because it would mean that--for one--everyone was literate and literacy was a world priority instead of going to war or colonizing Mars or something. However, I maintain hope in the idea nevertheless because it is hopeful to believe that we wouldn't be able to, or want to, keep up the frantic, schizophrenic, plastic way of living that we have cultivated in the US if everyone had to practice thinking and crafting language instead of practicing to perpetuate the models of reality that we have been given. I think that we at least have that in us.
and looked at, it burns.
in the middle
volume, loud and running
with the mixing
sky-line, a refusal
my planning arms
. . .